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Monday, December 26, 2011


(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 20 December, 2011.)
NOTE: This contains very little opinion. It's only useful for journalists who need to dash off these packages at the end of the year, so if you fall in that category, feel free to use the info.
ENVIRONMENT
Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
The largest nuclear disaster in the world since the Chernobyl gas tragedy in Bhopal in 1986, the impact of the Japan earthquake on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had huge ramifications. The earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, triggered a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and a release of radioactive substances at the nuclear power plant on 11 March.
The plant has 6 boiling water reactors designed by General Electric (GE), and maintained by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Of these, 3 were operational when the earthquake hit, and shut down automatically. Coolant systems were being controlled by emergency generators. But the tsunami that followed the earthquake cut off the reactors’ connection to the power grid, causing them to overheat, and eventually the 3 reactors had a ‘full meltdown’. Several hydrogen explosions occurred.
Thousands of people living in a 20 km radius around the plant were evacuated. Many workers were found to have suffered radiation exposure, and reports continue to stream in about detection of radioactivity in the area.
The disaster was ranked at a maximum of 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
Koodankulam Stir
One of the repercussions of the Fukushima disaster was the anti-Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant stir in Tamil Nadu. This plant is a joint venture by Russia and India, built at a cost of Rs 14,000 crore.
The two reactors in this plant were set to be operationalised within months, but a massive protest, involving thousands of residents of nearby towns and villages, was staged. While some scientists expressed reservations about the safety measures taken at this plant, others – including former President APJ Abdul Kalam assured the protesters it was safe.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa insisted that the fears of the people be addressed and allayed before a decision is taken on the fate of the plant. The state Cabinet passed a resolution to halt work until parleys are held.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on a recent tour of Russia, angered anti-KNPP activists by saying the first reactor would be operational in 2 weeks, and the second in 6 months.
Ban On Endosulfan
Another issue of enormous environmental importance was the banning of endosulfan. This pesticide is believed to have caused severe developmental problems in children, and had a hazardous effect on the environment and fauna too. The Kerala state government finally banned its use in the state.
On May 13, the Supreme Court ordered a countrywide ban on manufacture, sale and use of the cheap pesticide endosulfan, while an expert committee conducted tests to study its effects. The industry in India is estimated as being worth about Rs 500 crore.
On September 30, the SC agreed to the export of endosulfan for which orders had already been received. As companies began to complain of the huge stock of pesticide lying with them, on December 13, an apex court bench allowed the export of some of this stock, but warned against increasing the quantity of manufacture.
Climate Change Pact
After years of the US and other developed nations hemming and hawing about a legally binding agreement to contain carbon emissions, a step was finally taken in this direction on December 18, at the UN-sponsored climate change summit in Durban. Developed countries reluctantly agreed to address the issue by 2020.
While the European Union tried to force a legal commitment to lower carbon emissions by 2012, India and China refused to compromise on their economic growth, saying the current situation was not their fault. The Republicans and Democrats in the US have failed to agree on the terms of a climate deal.
But everyone finally voiced support for a ‘roadmap’ that would chart a timetable towards drafting a legally binding agreement.
SCIENCE
God Particle Comes Closer
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, which houses the Large Hadron Collider, is getting excitingly close to a “definitive answer” on the existence of the ‘God particle’. This invisible particle is the Higgs boson.
Physics theorist Peter Higgs had suggested in 1964 that there exists a particle that creates a force field, which seeps through the universe and gives other particles their mass. But the problem is that no one has found this particle, and the discovery is made more difficult by the fact that the particle supposedly exists only in high-energy collisions and lasts for one-septillionth of a second. It then breaks up into smaller particles that spurt out in various directions.
So why has this year been so promising? A particle that is about 125 times as heavy as a proton has been discovered, and this could be the ‘God particle’. If it is, it could prove a lot of theories of particle physics. If it is proved that this particle doesn’t exist, it would bring scientists back to square one in trying to explain the nature of matter.
Youngest Supernova Caught on Camera
In November, astronomers managed to obtain a radio astronomical photograph of a supernova just 14 days after it exploded. Through a series of coordinated telescopes, they pieced together an image so detailed that people have said, “it’s like seeing a golf ball on the surface of the moon” – that’s about a 100 times clearer than the images obtained by the Hubble space telescope.
This high resolution image of a supernova explosion – basically, the death of a star – will allow scientists to define the rate at which the shock wave created by the explosion expands.  It would also allow astronomers to gather more information about the life cycle of a star, and perhaps see earlier images of the star, before the explosion.
The star, named SN2011dh, is located 23 million light years from Earth, in the constellation of Llebrers.
TECHNOLOGY
iPAD2
This is the year Apple co-founder Steve Jobs lost his battle against cancer. And the last product he launched was the iPad 2. This tablet computer, a third thinner than its first version, has a battery life of up to 10 hours, a dual core Apple A5 processor, and both front-facing and back-facing cameras for video calls.  The device, which like its predecessor, serves as a platform for audio-visual media such as books, newspapers, movies, music, games and web browsing, was unveiled on March 2, and released across the world over March and April.
iPhone 4S
Next came the first Apple product launched after Jobs’ death – the iPhone 4S, with its exciting new feature Siri. This phone assistant allows the user to dictate messages and emails, order calls, set alarms, plan out his schedule, keep himself updated on the stockmarket and ask questions. Siri apparently understands what one says, and keeps questioning one until it has turned up the right result. From reminding you about a doctor’s appointment to telling you where you can get Chinese or Italian food near where you are, or where you live, or where you work, Siri does everything. Siri became so popular that Apple offered an upgrade for users of iPhone 4, so they could use the assistant.
Aakash
While Apple caters to the spendthrifts, the penny pinchers needed an affordable tablet. Enter the idea of Aakash, a tablet aimed at students as part of an ambitious project to link 25,000 colleges and 400 universities in an e-learning programme.
A joint venture between companies based in India and London, the Aakash tablet was launched on October 5, and just went on sale online, priced at Rs 2500. It has a 7” touchscreen, 256MB RAM, 2 USB ports, Android 2.2 OS, and HD video.
After several delays, the tablet finally went on sale on December 13. 30,000 units were put up. An improved version, with a longer battery life than the current 1.5 hours, is likely to be launched in January.
Battlefield 3
Let the games begin! EA’s first-person shooter video game, Battlefield 3, was highly anticipated thanks to the many awards it had won, including Best in Show at Gamescom in Germany and Future Game Award at the Tokyo Game Show.
Released in North America on October 25, 2011 and in Europe on October 28, 2011, it sold 5 million copies in its first week.
Game reviewers lapped it up, and most said it was a huge improvement to Battlefield 2, released in 2005 as the tenth instalment in the Battlefield franchise.

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